Well, today we began our pilgrimage in earnest. Like millions of pilgrims before us over the past 1,000 years(!), we made our way the 50 miles from Paris to Chartres, to pray at - and marvel at - the Cathedral de Notre Dame there. Since the Middle Ages, Chartres has been a very important Marian pilgrimage center, and today the faithful still come from the world over to honor the Blessed Mother. And so it was for us.
Our group leader, Sister Eleanor Dooley, continues to amaze and inspire us with her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of this region, and her ability to describe these places in a profoundly graceful way that expresses her love of God and touches our souls. (Oh, and the fact that at the age of 78, she keeps moving, like the Energizer bunny…)
As we approached Chartres on the bus, she began talking to us about the concept of pilgrimage, and how it signifies the pilgrim's journey to his or her center, and to God. In one breath, she described the 800-year-old labyrinth laid into the floor of the Chartres Cathedral, an 11-circuit "maze" walked by pilgrims - some on their knees - in a questing, searching journey with the hope of becoming closer to God. And in the next breath, she quoted T.S. Eliot speaking of "arriving at the place we start."
She went on to describe how author Paul Claudell converted to Catholicism in the late 1800s while standing in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, inspired by its majesty: "at that moment, I believed." (Paul Claudell (1868-1955) was one of the foremost French poets and playwrights in the early 1900s, and helped provide a new religious focus to the literature of his time. His writings are examples of the Roman Catholic revival in French literature and philosophy.)
Sr. Eleanor told us we would be awed when we first saw the Chartres Cathedral appear on the horizon, like a distant jeweled city. When you approach from a distance, she explained, it seems to hover in mid-air above waving fields of wheat. She quoted noted French poet Charles Peguy (1873-1914), who was taken by the sight, and wrote:
Tour de David voici votre tour Beauceronne.
C'est l'epi le plus dur qui soit jamais monte,
vers un ciel de clemence et de serenite,
et le plus beau fleuron dedans votre couronne.
My French is rusty at best and I wasn't totally sure what this meant, so I ran it through the internet translator, and here's what came out:
Turn of David here your from the beauce tower.
This is the epi more hard that never brought up,
towards a sky of clemence and of serenite,
and the most beautiful fleuron inside your crown.
Here's Sr. Eleanor's translation - into something that sounds more like ENGLISH(!):
Tower of David, here is your Beauceronne tower.
in the cradle of France, it is the most lasting thing
that has ever risen to a sky of mercy and peace,
and the most beautiful jewel in your crown.
She was certainly right about the Cathedral's initial impact. We were in awe approaching the city, seeing the two massive spires looming in the distance, and we could only imagine the awe that the early pilgrims must have felt as they approached on foot. Seeing how the Cathedral dwarfed everything around it, it was easy to understand the huge importance of the Church to the people.
Considered one of the finest examples in all France of the "Gothic" style of architecture, the current cathedral was begun in 1145 and completed 75 years later in 1220.
It is unique in that its two spires are compeletly different — one, a 349-foot plain pyramid dating from the 1140s, and the other a 377-foot flamboyant spire built in the early 16th century on top of an older tower. The contrast is striking.
It was primarily a pilgrimage site since the 12th century, and masses of people walked or rode horses for days - or WEEKS - to arrive at the Cathedral to pray.
Many of the pilgrims came to Chartres to pray to Mary and see a famous relic housed there - "the cloak of the Virgin." According to legend, since 876 the Cathedral has housed a tunic that had belonged to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Sancta Camisia. The relic had supposedly been given to the Cathedral by Charlemagne, who received it as a gift during a crusade in Jerusalem.
We did get to see the relic - the cloak of the Virgin Mary. It is housed in a small chapel in the back of the Cathedral, encased in glass and mounted in a reliquary of gold and jewels. Many of us lit candles and sat in the chapel to pray to Our Lady.
And as if we were not blessed enough to be visiting such an incredible place, we had the opportunity to listen to a 75-minute lecture in the church from Malcolm Miller, the world's foremost authority on Chartres. He has studied the Cathedral for more than half a century, and knows it intimately.
Here's what writer Kathleen Lang had to say about one of Miller's lectures: "According to Mr. Miller, the 13th century Chartres Cathedral can be compared to a library. And like a library, we may visit and read many books, maybe even re-read some books, but we will never read all the books. Chartres is much the same. Its contents: architectural design, statues, and stained glass are each like books and their respective images their text. What is remarkable in this new millennium, said Miller, is that much of Chartres can still be "read." (http://www.artagogo.com/commentary/miller/miller.htm)
Indeed, Mr. Miller described some of the features of the Cathedral - mostly the remarkable stained glass windows and statuary - in such a way that we were all spellbound, and understood on a much deeper level the significance of what we were seeing.
He described how the superb early 13th century stained glass windows (the most complete collection of medieval stained glass in the world) were in fact like story books for illiterate people centuries ago. He "read" them to us, panel by panel, showing us how they told the stories of Jesus and Mary.
He led us outside to do the same with the medieval carvings on the facade, identifying those depicted in the sculptures. Some depict Christ's ascension into heaven, episodes from his life, the saints, the apostles, Christ in the lap of Mary, and other religious scenes. Sculptures of the Seven Liberal Arts appear in the right bay of the main portal, which represented the famous school in the Middle Ages at Chartres, and certainly resonate for those of us from a Catholic liberal arts college.
A very prim and distinguished British man, Mr. Miller had a vey dry sense of humor that often left us chuckling. At one point he was talking about the people who came to visit, and their ignorance about Christiany. He told the story of one man who, when Mr. Miller referred to Jesus as a Jewish man, said with great surprise, "Jesus was a Jew? When did he become a Christian?" Mr. Miller paused and said, "He was born again."
By the way, Sister Eleanor just happened to mention that she had brought Mr. Miller to speak at Elms College twice, many years ago, and that he offered her a permanent job in the Chartres Cathedral, interpreting Christianity for visitors of other religions …. She turned him down! She never ceases to amaze.
In the evening, after returning from Chartres, we managed to "squeeze in" (!) a two-hour visit to the Louvre. While it would take about 100 years to see everything in this amazing museum, this short time gave us a chance to see the three most famous pieces in the collection: the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory. And as it was a special wish of Sr. Eleanor's that we see the painting of Saint Joseph by Georges de La Tour (go Sisters of St. Joseph!), we trudged through gallery after gallery (being mis-directed by several Louvre employees) until we finally found it in a far-flung gallery. It was a masterpiece that left us breathless, and was well worth the walk.
We all agreed, however, that what we wanted next were foot massages!
Here's a reflection from one of our group, Eileen Kirk, who is Elms' co-director of special programs and an associate of the SSJs:
Everywhere we go, I keep thinking how incredible everything is here in France! The brilliant minds that thought of a building design, the hands that constructed the building, the time it took to complete it, the passion and care with which it was done—all of it just takes your breath away!
Today we had the great fortune to participate in a tour at Chartres given by Malcolm Miller. He is brilliant! It is clear that he is the true scholar regarding Chartres! He was able to weave together the history of the world with the windows of Chartres. Amazing!
We continue to pray in thanksgiving for this opportunity….Many thanks to all back home for your loving support. We certainly feel your presence here.
Au revoir, mes amis.
Tomorrow, we are looking forward to visiting many notable sights in Paris, including Notre Dame Cathedral, Sainte Chapelle, and a memorial to the deportation of French Jews during WWII. — LOTS MORE WALKING!!!! We are all going to be in terrific shape when we come home, and Sr. Eleanor says she had darn well better lose a pound or two. AMEN!